Tiny Edwards battling annexation, services

Published 12:05 am Sunday, September 4, 2011

EDWARDS — Growth and beauty are words often spoken when people talk about the past and present in Edwards.

“It was one of the most beautiful little Mississippi towns when I moved here,” said 56-year resident Dorothy Brasfield, recalling a thriving downtown during the mid-20th century that boasted groceries, banks, five-and-dime stores and a dealership to buy automobiles to hit the open road, usually U.S. 80.

Annexation that would expand the town’s boundaries fourfold, construction of the first grocery store in Edwards in decades and whether a banking institution will return to town are today’s conversation pieces. The expansion plan has lost steam in the courts in recent months, but it’s an issue Mayor R.L. Perkins still believes can be a positive for the west Hinds County community.

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“In order for your town to grow properly, you need a solid tax base,” Perkins said, conceding the key benefit of adding 5.3 square miles to the town’s 1.7 square miles is extra property tax revenue, though at the same 47 mills currently collected.

About 20 miles east of Vicksburg, the town of Edwards shrank in the past decade — coming in at 1,034 residents in the 2010 count, down from 1,347 in 2000. In 2008, a move to expand south and west of Mississippi 467 ended amid outcries from property owners against an extra tax bill.

A year later, the city hired Oxford planning consultant Slaughter & Associates and formed maps proposing added growth north of Interstate 20, east to Buck Reed Road and west about a half-mile past Jones Road. About 800 people would be annexed in the process.

A 2010 case against 11 landowners and firms who hired lawyers remains active in Hinds County Chancery Court, though fierce opposition formed quickly and has won a key victory from the state’s high court.

Town officials appealed a ruling by Chancery Judge Denise Owens allowing the defendants to hire their own expert witness. On Aug. 18, a three-judge panel of the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in the landowners’ favor, and the defense hired Oxford planner Bridge & Watson Inc. A week later, the town moved to drop the effort entirely, provided each side pays its own legal fees. A hearing on that motion is set for Sept. 21. It remains unclear if and when the town again will attempt annexation.

For defendants living in the proposed annexed areas, the question has centered on “what’s in it” for them. The answer, they say, is nothing.

“There’s just no reason for them to do it,” Brasfield said, adding her family land northeast of town would have been annexed and taxed by both the town and the county.

She also heads up a homeowners association in Edwards. “They admitted in court it was just for the ad valorem taxes. They can’t offer us anything right now.”

Perkins says the annexed properties would get a higher fire protection rating, lowering insurance rates.

Fire protection districts in Mississippi are rated by the Mississippi State Rating Bureau. A fire insurance rebate program sends money from a nominal tax on all premiums back to localities, where money is typically reinvested in new equipment and training. Localities often request re-ratings after such as new hydrants or modernized trucks are purchased.

Individual districts are rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 the best, on factors such as water supply, location, equipment and personnel. Edwards rates a 9 while the West Hinds Volunteer Fire Protection District, which actually handles the town’s fire responses, rates a 10, said Joe Shoemaker, a manager with MSRB.

“I really don’t go into town except to go to the post office,” said Fant Fancher, whose 140 acres sits off Askew Ferry Road, north of Interstate 20 and inside the proposed annexation zone. “And that’s because Postal Service requires it be in a downtown area.”

Fancher, one of the 11 named in the suit, also remembers the “beautiful little town” that had already begun to fade when he moved there in 1974.

“There was Noble Grocery, Mississippi Valley Gas, Hubbard Motor Company, a lumber yard,” he said.

A grocery store and a bank, two community staples on which Perkins has harped since taking office in 2005, are on their way back to Edwards.

Dollar General plans to open a 7,000 square-foot store on U.S. 80 by October, said Tawn Earnest, a spokeswoman for the Goodlettsville, Tenn.-based discount retailer.

Its construction means not only a place to pick up a loaf of bread without driving to Vicksburg or Clinton, but to rebuild a withered job base.

“The town needs Dollar General desperately,” said Dave Montgomery, whose brother, Sonny, ran the Hubbard dealership, which sold Plymouths at U.S. 80 and Magnolia Street from the late 1940s to the 1970s. “We need businesses.”

A bank may take longer, but officials with Hope Credit Union in Jackson have said they are interested in opening a branch in Edwards and one in Utica.

The institution, which caters to economically depressed locales, was allowed by Utica officials to operate inside City Hall to open new accounts. Sights are set on a permanent location in Edwards, now without a bank. The BancorpSouth location near town hall, previously a Merchants Bank and Bank of Edwards, and the Utica branch were two of eight underperforming branches closed in Mississippi and 23 shuttered overall by the Tupelo-based multistate bank.

Bank officials met with residents Aug. 22 and, with input from residents and church leaders, will decide the best place to house it, CEO Bill Bynum said. BancorpSouth location still owns the closed branch and a purchase would be necessary for the credit union to move in.

“It’s further along in Utica because we started the conversation earlier,” Bynum said. “We’re committed to serving those folks in Edwards. We have no facility right now, but we’re working with community to identify a location.”

Gloria Christiansen, who pens an online blog about her adopted hometown, would be “tickled to death” to have either a store or a bank. Whether it sinks or swims is a long-term question for the community, she said.

“It’s usually so much easier to hop on I-20 to Clinton or Vicksburg,” she said. “That’s the thing — will they support it?”